Who Is Really Free?

In Columns, Features, Pieces to Peter's Puzzling World by Peter Webster

Freedom is easy to talk about, easy to write about—but very difficult to live.

Freedom. Fourth of July. Originally to celebrate the Declaration of Independence, our national freedom from England…

When I think about freedom—I also think about its antithesis, slavery. Three things came to mind:

“There’s no freedom without economic freedom,” “Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave,” and “Wage-slaves.”

Franklin Roosevelt, at the end of World War Two, listed four essential freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. These definitions all relate to each other.

“There’s no freedom without economic freedom,” seems almost unobtainable, doesn’t it? I see dozens of books about how to get economic freedom on the bookshelves at the library. There’re plenty of financial gurus floating around TV—a dime a dozen, you might say. All kinds of people claim to be able to teach us how to get financial freedom…but mostly they seem to have achieved this by telling us how we should do it.

Then, there’s this question: is freedom only about having lots of money and stuff? “Freedom of property ownership,” isn’t what it’s all about. If we’re going to own a bunch of stuff, the way things are, we’re paying for them forever. A fifty-year mortgage is like some sort of costly rental rather than actual ownership. The people I know who “own” homes are always paying on them: if not just for the homes, then for the loans they’ve taken against their equity in the place.

Once there are those kinds of debts, you better have a good-paying job and pray it continues, because to lose a job too often means to lose all the possessions—the paycheck, cars, house, credit cards, health insurance, soccer lessons for the kids…everything. Since few people actually own their business, most folks have no control over their job security. If you don’t like your job, that’s a serious problem.

Even looking for a new job is a scary deal. If you can’t quit because you absolutely have to have that money coming in—and usually lots of it—then you are a slave to the paycheck, the wages. That’s what it means to be a “wage slave.”

Been there, done that. It stinks. It just about killed me. Or, I just about killed myself when I lost all that stuff. No job, no money, no insurance, no home—no self-respect. It was a hard time.

We have a friend. I’ll call her—Tammy. When I think about freedom, I think of Tammy and her situation. She’s about as empathetic as anyone I’ve ever met. She’s about as sick as anyone I’ve ever met, too: diabetes, hepatitis C, and heart disease. Originally a drug-addled single mother and college drop-out, she started getting back in school about a dozen years ago. She took out student loans and finished up a bachelor’s degree; then she got a master’s degree, and now she’s working on her doctorate.

It’s all done on borrowed money—and maybe borrowed time. This year, for the first time, utterly exhausted, she took the summer off. This means no income. She lives in a building where her rent is subsidized according to her income.

Zero income, zero rent. She’s been getting her medical care through the university; the student loans covered some of her meds, and the pharmaceutical companies provided some freebies. They don’t give away insulin though, nor syringes. To qualify for Medicaid, she has to have a job. She’s fifty years old, diabetic, a bad liver, and her heart gives her constant trouble. The only jobs she can find are telemarketing scams.

It’s hard to do something you absolutely hate for the minimum wage. She’s in a very bad place. We’ve been trying to talk her into giving up grad school—at least for now, dropping out, and getting Social Security. But she sees that as failure…

So, is Tammy free? She hasn’t got much freedom that I can see. No more than someone who enlisted in the military because there weren’t any available jobs and there was a family to support.

When I crashed and burned, going on SSD was the best thing that happened to me. For the first time in my mature life, I had the opportunity to do what I wanted. I had some good jobs in my life, and I had some bad jobs. But none of the jobs really had much to do with my work.

There’s a big difference. We all have our work; few people get paid for it; that’s why they have jobs. I wanted to work for social justice and change, and write. Social Security Disability gave me that chance. It hasn’t given me a lot of money, but it’s given me enough to live decently, and, by living frugally, even take a trip once in a while.

No new car, no home theatre, my clothes come from Goodwill—I buy most stuff 2nd hand. I still manage to live better than 90% of the world’s population.

So, actually, by being disabled—”officially” disabled—I’ve achieved a remarkable degree of freedom. I can say what I want to say, believe as I prefer to believe, live without a lot of fear (sometimes that’s hard, given the way things are these days), and I don’t want for the essentials.

Those aren’t, necessarily, the “essentials” the TV and magazines tell me I need; those things are mostly junk.

“The best things in life aren’t things,” is a bumper sticker I see now and then; if I had a car I’d have it on the bumper.

I want to say something here about freedom and responsibility. To the degree I’m free, I have responsibilities. I’m not talking about the shouting-fire-in-a-crowded-theatre cliche, I’m talking about not blaming others for my actions. Being free means having to make choices and accept the consequences for them.

If, say, I kill somebody, it doesn’t make me less culpable to claim that god made me do it, or the boss—I’m old enough to remember the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials; “following orders” is no defense. Slaves, of course, don’t have responsibilities. During the Mexican War, Henry David Thoreau refused to pay his taxes because he thought the war was immoral.

He went to jail for that refusal. Ralph Waldo Emerson, his friend, came to visit him. “Why, Henry, what are you doing in here?”

Thoreau replied, “Why, Ralph, what are you doing out there?” Thoreau knew the consequences of his actions and accepted them. There’s a price for freedom. That can be very expensive. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Gandhi; Crazy Horse—they died living their experiences of freedom and responsibility. Freedom isn’t free.

But, in my experience, it’s worth the price.

Do you agree with Peter’s views on freedom?
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